"Coupon enthusiasts don’t like to be called ‘extreme couponers.’ It’s not what we do.”
In 2008, Jill Cataldo could not imagine that her life would be transformed by couponing; that she would become the nationally-renowned “Super-Couponing” queen.
Four years ago, she was a website developer and graphic designer. Then the recession hit and she lost her job. The mother of three had, by necessity, developed skills as a couponer to stretch the family budget. Her husband, who worked at the local library in a small Chicago northwest suburb, suggested she teach a coupon class there. A crowd of 20-30 people would have been considered a successful turnout; 162 signed up. Cataldo realized she might be on to something.
“I started getting calls from other libraries,” Cataldo told Millionaire Corner. “I lost one job but this was going crazy, and I ran with it.”
Today, Cataldo, in her late 30s, is head of an empire that includes a heavily-trafficked website and blog, a nationally syndicated newspaper column, and SRO couponing workshops, not to mention extensive media appearances.
The cable network TLC originally recruited her for its top-rated, but now highly suspect “Extreme Couponing” reality series. To her credit, she turned it down. “That was probably one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said. “I’m very much a gut-feel kind of person, and you could just tell (that series) was going to be exploitative.”
She credits the series with inspiring people “to pick up a pair of scissors” and motivating them to save. “It’s a fascinating show, but in a train wreck sort of way,” she said. “What bothers me is that it’s very extreme, and most people don’t (coupon) at that level. Coupon enthusiasts don’t like to be called ‘extreme couponers.’ It’s not what we do.”
What she does is preach to the coupon-converted, who are learning how to marshal the resources of the Internet to save money the previous Green Stamp generation never thought possible.
Everything Cataldo learned about couponing she learned trying to stretch the family budget. “I had no great aspirations to be an instructor or figurehead for saving money, but when I got married and started to raise a family, between my second and third child, I really became motivated to start looking for ways (to cut costs). One of the things that used to drive me crazy was when I noticed how much prices would fluctuate for the same item at the store. Cheerios could be $1.99 one week and $3.99 a week later. Obviously, if you buy these things when they’re a little cheaper and stock up a bit, you save money. Bring a coupon into it and it becomes a whole new game. If I have a coupon for $1 dollar off toothpaste, I’m not going to use it when toothpaste is $2.99. At some point it will be on sale for $1 (and I’ll use the coupon to get it for free). It’s like a poker game, really. Play your cards at the right time, and you’re taking things home very inexpensively.”
Like a major league ballplayer who can remember the first pitch they crushed for a home run, Cataldo can remember the coupon deal that helped to put her on the map. It was for cereal, and it allowed her to stock up for about five cents a box. At the time, The Chicago Sun-Times ran a column about frugality that solicited readers to share their money-saving tips and experiences. Cataldo emailed about her cereal score, and the paper called the next day. She would be featured in the next six columns. Readers had questions for her and she went online to chat with them. She became a weekly guest on a popular Chicago morning radio show. “It kind of snowballed,” she said.
Cataldo is a couponing cult hero. While she gets a speaking fee, she tries to hold her workshops in places that will not charge attendees. “I don’t think you should have to pay, or have to pay much, for a class in how to save money,’ she said.
For couponing newbies, the practice can seem to be overwhelming and an unwieldy time commitment, but Cataldo reassures that this is not the case. “If you have 30-60 minutes a week to devote to couponing, you can cut your bills in half. My grocery bill it $40-$60 a week for a family of five. It’s quite wonderful.”
“With the advent of the Internet and smartphones,” she added, “you really don’t have to know what you’re doing. There are a lot of sites that will hold your hand and give you all the information you need to know” (Savings Angel is a favorite of hers)
One of the most common couponing mistakes, Cataldo offered, is taking Sunday supplement coupons at face value. “Just because something is one sale doesn’t mean it’s available at the best price,” she said. “No, you want that rock bottom price that cycles back every 12 weeks or so.”
She also recommends not tossing the Sunday supplements even if you hadn’t planned on buying any of the advertised products that week. She calls it “big picture shopping.” “Sometimes the best deals are on the things we didn’t know we were going to buy,” she said. “If you don’t keep the inserts you are missing out on an item you may not need this week, but maybe you will a month from now. Expiration dates are anywhere from 30 to 90 days. Coupons don’t make me buy things I wouldn’t use, but I do think long-term. Will I need toilet bowl cleaner at some point? Absolutely.”
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.